The famous stone circle of Stonehenge in the English countryside is an instantly recognizable prehistoric monument and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Ancient humans started building here around 5,000 years ago – the stone circle was erected in the late Neolithic period, around 2,500 BC.
But many of its secrets have been lost over the centuries. Who were the people who built it? What was it for?
A new exhibition at the British Museum in London aims to dig deeper into these mysteries.
Shedding light on the true history of Stonehenge
“The World of Stonehenge” collects 430 objects, including standing stones from other places and objects used by people who lived when the monument was built.
“In the exhibition we explore the history of Stonehenge, we distinguish the different periods in which it was built and modified, and what we show is that there was not just one Stonehenge. There were many different monuments that meant different things to different people at different times,” says Dr Neil Wilkin, specialist in ancient Europe at the British Museum and senior curator of the exhibition.
Of course, Stonehenge itself remains in place at its site in Wiltshire. The exhibition therefore relies on other objects to tell its story.
This includes the so-called ‘Seahenge’, a wooden circle found buried on a Norfolk beach and erected around the same time Stonehenge was built.
There was some controversy when the decision was made to remove Seahenge from its location, but its appearance in the exhibit gives another insight into how people lived at that time.
“What’s amazing about Seahenge is how it survives. So we know from wood dating that it was built in 2049 BC in the spring or summer. So that’s over 4,000 years, and yet the bark and wood look like they were made not that long ago, maybe a year ago. It’s so new and urgent,” says Wilkin.
“And the monument itself had at its heart this upturned oak tree with its roots pointing skyward. And we think that’s probably a way that people tried to bring the underworld, the other world, back up to the surface so they can communicate with the gods or spirits.”
What other objects are on display?
Other items in this exhibit include stone axes from the Alps of northern Italy, spectacular gold jewelry and stunning examples of ancient metalwork, including the Nebra Sky Disc – the oldest star chart in the world. world.
The Nebra Sky Disc was made from Cornish gold and Central European bronze. It was found in Saxony-Anhalt, Germany.
Like Stonehenge, it could position the rising and setting sun, and Wilkin certainly sees its “star” value.
“It is decorated with stars, the crescent moon and the full moon, and it is the first representation in human history of celestial bodies, in this case the constellation of the Pleiades, sometimes called the Seven Sisters. This group of stars was very important to early farmers because the appearance and disappearance of this cluster of stars is often seen as a way to signal the start and end of the agricultural year,” he explains.
Another highlight of the exhibition is a 5,000-year-old chalk drum, considered one of the UK’s most important archaeological finds for 100 years.
You can read more about this recent discovery here.
An overview of the beliefs and rituals of Neolithic peoples
The British Museum and Stonehenge are nearly 90 miles apart.
But custodians of the prehistoric site believe the exhibit will tell people about the stone circle and more.
“I think they’re demonstrating prehistory in general, but they’re using Stonehenge as a kind of gateway because it’s so iconic and a lot of things relate to Stonehenge. But I think it’s going to give us a fantastic insight into the fact that these people, in a way, were like us, but just had different technologies,” says Heather Sebire, Senior Conservator of Stonehenge at English Heritage.
“We hope that by visiting the exhibit, people will want to come and see the real thing and we look forward to welcoming them when they come.”
‘The World of Stonehenge’ opens February 17 and lasts until July 17.
Watch the video above for a glimpse of this magnificent exhibit